Transitional arrangements introduced to smooth the roll-out of Universal Credit and the Covid-19 pandemic have significantly increased the number of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) – a key measure of disadvantage in schools. This pattern is set to continue over the next decade.
These newly eligible FSM pupils will change the composition of the group defined as disadvantaged, which will have a knock-on impact on the disadvantaged attainment gap, making it almost meaningless as a measure for monitoring how this group is progressing relative to non-disadvantaged pupils. Given the pandemic has particularly affected disadvantaged pupils, this is an important issue.
How has free school meal eligibility changed in recent years?
Since April 2018, all pupils whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit and earn less than £7,400 are eligible for FSM. This is alongside pupils who met the eligibility requirements for FSM as part of a number of legacy schemes.
Even before the pandemic, FSM eligibility was increasing. This is due to transitional arrangements introduced by the government in 2018 to smooth the roll-out of Universal Credit. Under these arrangements, those who are already eligible for FSM will continue to be so, even if their family circumstances improve. This was not the case before.
The pandemic has further amplified this trend by precipitating a sharp increase in the number of families in poverty over the past year. Indeed, the number of FSM-eligible pupils increased by almost a fifth between January 2020 and 2021, in both primary and secondary schools.
The pupils who newly became FSM-eligible during the pandemic disproportionately came from more disadvantaged areas, and from schools which were most disadvantaged (as defined by the fifth of schools with the highest FSM eligibility) before the pandemic. As such, these were pupils who might have already been considered in need of additional support but were not previously eligible.
Implications for the attainment gap
The disadvantaged attainment gap is a key policy measure used to inform government decision-making. It assesses the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, where a ‘disadvantaged’ pupil is defined as any pupil who has been eligible for FSM at any point in the past six years. As a result, changes in FSM eligibility are not only of interest in their own right, but also have the potential to affect how we interpret the evolution of the disadvantaged attainment gap.
Our latest NFER report shows that the attainment of newly FSM-eligible pupils is, on average, much lower than that of their non-FSM peers, but higher than (albeit closer to) those who were already FSM-eligible. This means that the changing profile of pupils who are classed as disadvantaged is likely to result in an apparent improvement in the average attainment of this group, even if the actual pupil attainment of those already eligible remains unchanged.
However, our research also shows that it is not possible to predict exactly how changes in the composition of disadvantage will affect the attainment gap. In other words, due to recent and anticipated changes in the patterns of disadvantage, it will be almost impossible to tell whether apparent changes in the measured attainment gap are being driven by changes to the composition of the disadvantaged group, economic conditions or genuine attainment changes.
While changes in the attainment gap are already subject to potential misinterpretation, it will become almost impossible for policymakers to understand how disadvantaged pupils are performing relative to their peers, how catch-up policies are supporting disadvantaged young people, or to identify where targeted support is most needed. At school-level, these changes in composition will also make it even trickier for leaders and governing bodies to understand how the attainment of their disadvantaged pupils is evolving.
What can we do about this?
To ensure that disadvantaged young people are adequately supported going forward, researchers and policymakers will urgently need to explore adopting a basket of measures which more accurately reflect gaps in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. This could include measures that establish how the attainment of pupils who are more ‘similar’ in terms of their disadvantage (e.g. based on the length/persistence of their disadvantage) is evolving over time.
Otherwise, there is likely to be scepticism around any future claims of progress in closing the attainment gap.